British and Foreign Unitarian Association.

A review of Dr. J.P. Smith's Scripture testimony to the Messiah online

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Online LibraryBritish and Foreign Unitarian AssociationA review of Dr. J.P. Smith's Scripture testimony to the Messiah → online text (page 1 of 15)
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Part of the

which was presented by
Messrs. R. L. and A. Stuabt.

sec 10,757

A review of


J. P.

Smith' s










Dr. J^ p. SMITH'S









Dr. J. p. Smith's " Scripture Testimony to the Messiah," is a work
which has attained to the highest reputation, not only within the pale of the
particular sect to which the author belongs, but amongst all classes of be-
lievers in the doctrines of reputed orthodoxy. It is certainly to be ranked
amongst the ablest defences of those doctrines which have ever appeared.
Learned, ingenious, and laborious, it deserves the attention of all who are
interested in the great controversy to which it relates : and if the irresistible
ter.dency of the system he defends, and the perverting prejudices to which it
gives occasion, have led the author often to treat his opponents with great
real injustice, there are also indications of kind feelings, and of a desire to
act towards them with candour and Christian meekness, which may with
many persons give more weight to his censures, rendering them, when
founded in error or misrepresentation, more dangerous, if not more offen-

It has been a special object with Dr. Smith to furnish a reply to the
" Calm Inquiry" of Mr. Belsham, and it is in reference more particularly
(though by no means exclusively) to this object, that we now propose to
examine his volumes — not that we would hold up Mr. Belsham's work as
faultless e'ther in plan or execution — not, certainly, that we consider the
great body of Christians who adopt the sentiments he defends, as answer-
able for the mistakes into which he may have fallen or the improper spirit
which he is accused of having manifested - but his work being honestly
esteemed by us an able and satisfactory treatise on a very important subject,
written under the influence of an enlightened, disinterested, and impartial
love of truth ; and the effect it has produced upon the minds of many intel-


ligent and sincere inquirers being well known to us, we were anxious to
satisfy ourselves respecting a laboured attack upon it coming from an indi-
vidual who stands so high both as to character and attainments as Dr.
Smith : and having long since fully satisfied ourselves, we think it season-
able at this time, when our venerated friend has been taken from among us,
and bis work, in consequence of the very small number of copies remaining,
may perhaps for the present have its circulation somewhat restrained, to call
the attention of our readers to the true state of the controversy, and assist
them in judging how far Dr. Smith has succeeded in invalidating Mr. Bel-
sham's arguments, or in otherwise defending the prevailing doctrine respect-
ing the person of our Lord.

Dr. Smith's woik is divided into four books, of which the first is occupied
with preliminary considerations ; the second is " On the Information to be
obtained concerning the Person of the Messiah from the Prophetic Descrip-
tions of the Old Testament ;" the third, *' On the Information to be ob-
tained concerning the Person of the Christ from the Narratives of the Evan-
gelical History, and from our Lord's own Assertions and Intimations ;" and
the fourth," " On the Doctrine taught by the Apostles in their Inspired Mi-
nistry concerning the Person of the Lord Jesus Christ." This distribution
of the subject may probably be the most natural and useful for the impartial
student, who, as he meets with each passage which may have a possible
bearing on the point he is investigating, will refer to lexicograjjhers, scho-
liasts, and commentators, without distinction of party or opinion, and having
obtained all the aids he can, will form his own independent judgment. But
where the object proposed is to set before our readers the results of our
inquiries, and to compare these results wi h those obtained by others, we
cannot help thinking that such an arrangement as Mr. Belsham's (who col-
lects and examines in order the texts which have been adduced in support
of each point of disputed doctrine) is more clear and satisfactory, as well as
more favourable to conciseness. We do not think it the best method for the
instruction of students, yet we were hardly prepared for the following re-
marks from any one possessing the least share of judgment or candour :

** The selection and arrangement of texts was certainlv, so far as it went, a
suitable means; provided a due regard were had to the studving of each in
its proper place and connexion. But to throw down before a company of
inexperienced youths a regular set of rival and discordant expositions, * in
general without any additional, or at least doctrinal, comment of the com-
piler's own,' appears to me to have been a method not well calculated to lead
into the path of convincing evidence and well-ascertained truth. It might
excite party feeling, wordy disputation, unholv levirv, and rash decision :
but so far as either from the theory of the case or from experience I am able
to form a judgment, I could not expect a better result, except in rare in-
stances indeed."— Scripture Testimony, Vol. I. Chap. vi. p. 160, second

On what grounds is it here insinuated that, under Mr. Belsham's guid-
ance, a due regard ivas not had to the connexion of texts, in defiance of his
own rule on the subject : *' In order to judge of the true sense of a disputed
text, it is necessary to consider the connexion iji which it stands" } (Calm
Inquiry, Introd. p. 3, 2d ed.) So long as important passag^es of Scripture
are difierently understood by men of learning, who are able each to give
some plausible reasons in favour of his own interpretation, what can the
honest and impartial instructor do but lay before his pupils, or, in Dr. S.'s
phraseology, " throw down before a company of inexperienced youths,"

a set of rival and discorduut expositions f Or how would this be avoided
by changins: the plan of treating the subject from Mr. B.'s to Dr. Smith's,
or to any other tliat may be suggested ? A theological lecturer is certainly
not bound to suppress the expression of his own opinions in his class ; and
provided that his pupils are prepared not to be the passive recipients of his
sentiments, but to reflect on all that is laid before them, and draw conclu-
sions for themselves, it is reasonable and natural that they should have the
benefit of his thoughts on the subject before them, as well as those of others:
but whilst he faithfully executes the duty of opening to them the existing
sources of information, his own opinion cannot be essential, and there may
be circumstances in which it is much better for him not to brinsj it forward
at all. If Mr. Belsham had added doctrinal comments of his own, we may
be sure that he would now be accused of having attempted unduly to bias
the minds of his pupils. If the fair statement of whatever has been said
most important on each side of a disputed question, be not " a method well
calculated to lead into the path of convincing evidence and well-ascertained
truth," we must presume that the plan preferred is making known only
what has been said on one side; or, if they cannot be concealed, accompa-
nying the arguments on the other side with such depreciating comments as
may effectually prevent their receiving any real attention. Why the de-
mand for profound and impartial thought oa the most important topics of
human inquiry, that which might be supposed to have, of all possible em-
ployments, most tendency to sober the mind and impress it with a feeling of
solemn responsibility, should be judged likely to excite " party feeling,
wordy disputation, unholy levity, and rash decision," is what we cannot
understand, nor can we conceive how the prerequisites for the successful
study of the Scriptures demanded by Dr. Smith in the passage immediately
following that which we have quoted, should appear to him to be opposed
to the vie^vs of his rival, or to be any thing different from what every theo-
logical instructor, whatever might be his peculiar opinions, must desire to
find amongst those whose studies he is called upon to direct.

Guided by the arrangement of Dr. Smith's work, we shall now apply our-
selves to notice such portions of it as the limits wiihin which this article
mu'-t necessarily be confined, will allow us to select for animadversion ; and
we mnst begin by exposing the sophistry of the first chapter, entitled, " On
the Evidence proper to this Inquiry :"

" We cannot," says Dr. S., " reasonably doubt of the Unity- of Cod, in
every sense in which unity is a perfection : hut to the exact determination of
that sense we are not competent A manifest unity of intelligence, design,
and active power, does not warrant the inference that taiitt/ in all respects,
without modification, is to be attributed to the Deity. For any thing that we
know, or are entitled to presume, there may be a sense of the term unity
which implies restriction, and would be incompatible with the possession of
all possible perfection." — P. 10.

We ascribe unity to the Deity. Unity is a word — a significant sound —
a sound significant (Uke all words) only from the power of association, and
having no sense inherent in itself which may remain unknown to those ac-
quainted with its ordinary usage. It is not like many words, the notions
corresponding to which in difl'erent minds are very different : on the con-
trary, the meaning it conveys, on all other subjects besides the one now
under consideration, is definite, clear, and universally agreed upon. Why
then do we employ it upon this subject ? Either our meaning is the same
as when we apply the same term to other subjects, or we use the word in a

loose sense to express some resemblance or approximation to the usual
one, or we use it without any distinct meaning at all. It is very possible
to use a word without meaning, as part of a formula which we have been
early taught, and which, without having been reflected upon, is associated, as
a whole, with certain notions of sanctity and doty; but we manifestly cannot
so use a word as the result of our own observations or inquiries : it cannot,
therefore, be in this manner that we ascribe unity to the Deity from the
study of his works. Neither is it in the loose sense, for when we reason from
unity of intelligence, design, and active power, to unity of mind, and there-
fore of being, the argument may or may not be conclusive ; but it has no
meaning, no existence whatever, if we change the sense of the term. It is
plain, then, that the unity of the Deity, as a doctrine of natural religion,
{whether established by suflacient evidence or not,) is unity in the obvious
sense of the term, and is opposed to plurality of persons, hypostases, or dis-
tinctions, of whatsoever kind, in the Divine Nature.

After some farther argument on our ignorance of the essence and mode
of existence of the Deity, Dr. Smith proceeds to say,

" These remarks have been made with a view to shew that there is no
antecedent incredibjlitt/ in the supposition, that the infinite and unknown
essence of the Deity mm/ comprise a plurality— not of separate heings — but
of hypostases, suhsistencies, persons; or, since many wise and good men
deem it safest and most becoming to use no specific term for this ineffable
subject,— of distinctions; always remembering that such distinctions alter not
the unity of the Divine Nature For any thing that we know, or have a right
to assume, this may be one of the itmqu'e properties of the Divine Essence*; a
necessary part of that Sole Perfection which must include every real, every
possible excellence; a circumstance peculiar to the Deitv, and distinguishing
the mode of His existence from that of the existence of all dependent

Now we have shewn that so far as the argument from Katnre for the
Divine Unity is good for any thing, (we will not press'it as conclusive,) it is
an argument for Unity, in the obvious and usual sense of that term, excluding
and opposed to all plurality. No one can say that any appearance of Nature
sanctions the doctrine which is contended for ; and from the phi!o?opher to
the savage, no one possessing the use of his reason, ever heard it proposed
for the first time, or first applied himself to study it, without feelings of sur-
prise and of repugnance. It is hardly then too much to say, that there must
exist in every unprejudiced mind a justifiable indisposition towards its re-
ception—an indisposition which may indeed be overcome by evidence, but
which must require to overcome it evidence char, direct, consistent, and
ahundant. We are called upon to admit this notion of plurality in unity on
the authority of revelation, whilst, inconsistently enough, we are told in the
same breath that it cannot be understood. It "is represented that we may
conceive it possible that there may be a sense of the term Unity consistent
with such plurali'y as exists in the' Divine Nature, though the term Unity is
an arbitrary sign, unmeaning, except as it excites by association a certain
notion in the minds of those who hear it ; and the notion which it thus re-
presents is, with equal correctness, represented by the phrase " absence of
plurality;" tliat is to say, we might as consistently affirm existence and non-
existence of the same thing, at the same time, as unity and plurality : yet
every attempt at rendering the ideas at all compatible is proscribed as heresy.
We cannot even know what to call the distinctions in the Divine Nature : if
we use the common term persons, we must consider that term as havino- a

special but inexplicable sense ; if we substitute any otlier word, we must
equally renieniber tliat it is the sign of an idea, never possessed by any hu-
man mind, and is to us an unmeaning sound, or only reminds us at most of
the existence of a mystery which we can never hope to penetrate. All this
of a doctiine of revelation^ a doctrine revealed^ i. e. made known. JVhat
made known ? Is it the necessity of using a certain form of words ? Even
thus the principal orthodox terms are not Scriptural — but no ! prescription
of words is not revelation. There must be someihing for the understanding
to embrace, and by meditation on which the practical benefits of truth or
knowledge may be obtained. It is senseless to talk of that being revealed,
winch does not even remain unintelligible, but in respect to which we are
obliged to substitute language which excites inconsistent and utterly irre-
concilable ideas for the confession of ignorance. It is vain to refer us to
the mysteries of Nature and Providence, and the incomprehensibility of all
the Divine perfections. We are, indeed, blind and feeble-minded, and it
would be strange if finite beings could fully comprehend the attributes or
works of Him who is infinite ; but on all these subjects what we think that
we know is intelligible and practically useful, what remains mysterious is so
confessedly, and does not mock us with the pretence of baing revealed in
language which is either unmeaning or contradictory.

It cannot then be thought unreasonable to insist that there is a strong an-
iecedent improhabiUty attending the doctrine of the Trinity. For our own
parts, so completely are we convinced of the sufficiency of the evidence for
the Jev\ish and Christian revelations, and so deeply are we impressed with
a sense of the importance of these dispensations to mankind, that whatever
is proved from the records to be a genuine part of them we will submissively
receive, and if we cannot understand it, we will believe that our profession.
of it is to do some sood ; but we neither can nor ought to resist the feelini^
that pecuharly strong and clear evidence is necessary to support a doctrine
such as this : nor, if persons who were fully satisfied that no trace of it is to
be found in the records of the Divine communications have spoken of its
absurdity and utter impossibility, can such language with any appearance of
justice be attributed to impiety or contempt of revelation. We do not,
however, justify such language ; what we have said has been merely in
reply to Dr. Smith's attempt to set aside all antecedent improbability. We
are persuaded that Unitarian Christians act most wisely in meeting the
question simply as a Scriptural question. Other views of the subject may
appear to them very striking, but they acknowledge the Sacred Records as
tlie guides of their faith, and, firmly convinced that the Trinity is not taught
or implied in them, they are anxious, in the first place, fairly and candidly
to discuss that point with those who maintain the contrary position.

The next passage upon which we feel ourselves compelled to remark, and
which is an example of the treatment Mr. Belsham uniformly receives from
Dr. Smith, is the note (A) to Chapter HI. which we must quote at length :

** No writer can be more prompt to appeal to the original text than the
author of the Calm Inquiry ; and for tliis, when reason and truth warrant the
appeal, let him he commended. But a case happens in which the error of the
Authorized Version affords a semblance of support to the Unitarian cause :
and then he can argue from the very inaccuracy of the translation, with as
comfortable a confidence as could he felt by the most illiterate of those lay-
preachers, upon whom, on another occasion, he has poured unsparing con-
tempt. (See a Letter to Lord SiJmouth, by the liev. Tliomas Belsham, 1811 )
This case is one in which, uith a view to neutralize tiie passage, * In him
dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily,' (,Col. ii. V,) he brings an

alleged instance of the application of similar language to Christians generally :
*In the Epistle to the Ephesians, chap, iii 19, the Apostle prays that they
may he filled ivith all the fulness of God, i. e. with knowledge of the Divine
will, and conformity to the Divine image.' P. 252. — But the Apostle's ex-
pression is, * that ye may be filled unto all the fulness of God;' suggesting
the sublime conception of an approximation to the Supreme perfection,
which is begun by religion now, and shall be ever growing in the holiness
and bliss of the future state; while the infinity of distance must for ever
remain between Deity and the creature. This palpable error is retained in
the text of the * Improved Version,' and the true rendering is barely men-
tioned in a note with this vapid and silly interpretation — i. e. * that ye may
be admitted into the Christian Church.' As if the community of Ephesian
Christians, which had flourished so many years in full organization (Acts xx.)
and eminent stability (Ephes. i. 13—15/, was not yet to be regarded as a part
of the Christian Church !"

Now it happens, notwithstanding what we must call the bitterness of in-
vective in this note, that the common version of Ephes. iii. 19, is not a
palpable error, and was manifestly adhered to by Mr. Belshani, whether
rightly or not, from conviction after examination. It will be sufficient for
us to quote Dr. Bloomfield's note :

" In the interpretation of these words, the commentators, as on many other
occasions, exceedingly differ. But, as often, the mo&t natural, simple, and
extensive application will be found the best. Now, as the Apostle had been
speaking of the immense and inconceivable love of God and Christ, so here
(I assent to Grotius, Whitby, Crellius, and Macknight) he means to say that
by thus attaining the Holy Spirit, and having suitable conceptions of the
great mystery oif Redeeming love, they may be filled with all the spiritual
gifts and blessings, both ordinary and extraordinary, that God can and will
impart to his faithful worshipers. 'Ek is put for sv; than mhich nothing- is
more frequent in Scripture. Compare infra iv, 10, and Col. i. 9." — Bl. Re-
censio Synoptica, Vol. VII, p. 581.

This distinguished scholar, and the eminent critics whom he here fol-
lows, will, in the estimation of most persons, at least protect Mr. Belsham
from the charges of retaining a palpable error, and ignorantly or unfaith-
fully arguing from the inaccuracy of a translation. In the Improved Ver-
sion, it seems. Dr. Smith's true rendering is barely mentioned in a note,
(two different translations, however doubtful the case, can hardly be both
introduced into the text—one must be placed in a note, or else neglected,)
with a vapid and silly interpretation. We v\ill only say this interpretation
is that of Schleusner, (in verb. ■nX'^pui^a,, No. 7,) to whom Mr. Belsham re-
fers ; and no competent judge — no one who examines his references and
reflects on what he says — will treat it with contempt, even if he should be
induced ultimately to reject it.

We must now quote a paragraph from the fourth chapter, *' On the
Errors and P'aults, in relation to this Controversy, attributable to Unitarian
"Writers," which, for its uncandid and illiberal spirit, we have hardly seen
surpassed, even in the course of our attention to the Unitarian controversy :

'* It has appeard to me," says Dr. S , " that one of the distinguishing fail-
ings of the Unitarian theology is a propensity to generalize too soon, and to
conclude too hastily, both in criticism and in argumentation. It seems the
habit of its advocates to assume a few of the broadest facts in the scheme of
Christianity, which are obvious to the most rapid glance : and, with a sweep-
ing hand, they either crush down all the rest, and leave them unregarded, or
they force them into an unnatural and disfiguring subordination to the fa-
vourite assumptions. Unlike the cautious and [laticnt spirit of true philoso-

phy, which is always open to the collection and the careful estimation of
facts, and which regards nothing as more hostile to its objects than a precipi-
tate and foreclosinic o^eneralizalion, the Unitarian spirit rather resembles that
of the old scholasticism, which spurned laborious investigation and slow in-
duction, and would force all nature into its ranks of predicaments and predi-
cables. This may be one reason, amoni^ others, why these notions meet with
so ready an acceptance in young minds, inexperienced, flirty, and ambitious,
half-learned, and ill-disciplined. Here is a theology easily acquired, discard-
ing mysteries, treading down difficulties, and answering the pleas of the or-
thodox with summary contempt : a theology complimentary to the pride of
those who deem themselves endowed with superior discernment, and which
in practice is not ungenerously rigid against any favourite passion or little
foible that is decently compatible with the ivorld's code oC morals."

We suppose we must expect Dr. S. to speak slighiingly of our mode of
reasoning, since he so Utile likes our conclusions, and we are very willing
to leave our logic to its own defence ; but we will venture, though the same
thought will occur to most of our readers, to illustrate the character of
mind— 7/0 W7i^, inexperienced, flirty, and ambitious, half-learned, and ill-
disciplined — to which our doctrines have been found acceptable, by naming
Milton, Newton, Locke, Lardner, Priestley — and VVhilby and Watts, as the
last resting-place of their minds, at the close of lives devoted to religious
inquiries. We are tempted to enumerate others distinguished for their
great attainments, their ))owers of mind, the prejudices with which they had
to struggle, or the sacrifices they made to what they believed to be the truth,
but it is needless. Dr. ."S. may have seen that Unilarianism recommends
itself to young minds, ardent in the pursuit of truth, ambitious of being dis-
tinguished in promoting it, too inexperienced to be influenced by motives of
worldly wisdom, not yet having their own thoughts lost and buried in a mass
of ill-digested learning, too ill-disciplined to suppress as criminal the doubts
which inquiry may suggest — and he forgets that the same views have satisfied
the matured judgment of those whose fame he cannot injure, have been en-
tertained with the fullest conviction by those whose genius, learning, and

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Online LibraryBritish and Foreign Unitarian AssociationA review of Dr. J.P. Smith's Scripture testimony to the Messiah → online text (page 1 of 15)